For many people the watermelon is their go to summer melon. However if you want a melon that is really filled with sweet, juicy flavor then why not try growing cantaloupe?
Originating in Persia the cantaloupe is named after a town near Rome, Cantaloupe, where the Pope once had a villa. Easy to grow as a summer annual in USDA Zones 4 to 10, in warmer areas you can also grow the plant in the spring and fall.
The distinctive rind of the cantaloupe makes it easy to identify.
Also known as rockmelon or spanspek this orange fleshed fruit is pleasingly quick to grow. Most varieties produce mature fruit in 65 to 90 days. A ripe, healthy melon weighs around 3 to 4 pounds.
Not only is growing cantaloupe a surprisingly straightforward process, it is also a great choice if space is at a premium. The fruit develops on vines which can be trained to grow up trellising, allowing you to use the soil beneath the vines for other fruit or vegetables.
Easily identified by its net-like rind, in cooler climates this is the perfect summer fruit. Ideal in fruit salads, salsas, antipasto or as a fresh snack, the cantaloupe is an ideal addition to the fruit and vegetable garden. Here is your complete guide to growing cantaloupe.
Different Varieties of Cantaloupe
Belonging to the Gourd or Cucurbitacae family, cantaloupe is a cultivar of the muskmelon, C. melo, genus. The name is used to describe both the European (C. melo var. Cantalupensis) and North America (C. melo var. Reticulatus) varieties. While the two varieties are largely the same, one of the most obvious differences is in the appearance of the fruit. The skin of North American cantaloupe varieties can look net-like. European varieties appear more ribbed, with a light green skin.
There are a range of different cantaloupe cultivars currently available. While heirloom varieties may have more flavor, modern hybrid cultivars are often more robust and disease resistant.
Aphrodite Hybrid is known for its sweet honey-like taste and succulent flesh. Ideal if you only enjoy a short growing season, Aphrodite Hybrid fruit matures within 72 days. Once mature each fruit weighs 6 to 8 pounds. A modern cultivar it is resistant to many common cantaloupe diseases such as powdery mildew and fusarium wilt.
Athena Hybrid is another disease resistant cantaloupe cultivar. Maturing within 75 days, Athena’s fruit is both aromatic and packed with flavor. Once picked, the fruit tends to keep fresh for a little longer than other varieties.
Top Mark is a hardy, heirloom cultivar that is known for its disease resistance and heat tolerance. It produces mature fruit, weighing about 4 pounds, within 80 to 90 days.
Hearts of Gold is a sweet, medium sized plant that thrives in zones 3 to 10. Within 90 days it produces mature fruit that weighs 2 to 3 pounds. The plant has a spread of 72 inches and can reach a height of 18 inches. Hearts of Gold is also resistant to powdery mildew.
Honey Rock is another reliable cultivar that produces large, 4 pound fruit. An heirloom cultivar it matures in 75 to 90 days. The fruit is large, sweet and rich. It is hardy in zones 4 to 11.
Minnesota Midget is a reliable dwarf cultivar which produces juicy melons. These weigh about 3 pound when mature, usually within 65 days of sowing. Hardy in zones 3 to 10 it has a spread of just 3 ft meaning that it is ideal for container gardens. Sugar Cube is another dwarf cantaloupe cultivar that is pleasingly disease resistant. It is popular for its sweet, robust fruit, which weigh about 2 pounds.
Take the time to find a variety that appeals to you and is appropriate for your growing situation.
You can either purchase seed packets or young plants, known as transplants. These are young vines ready for transplanting straight into their final position.
Growing From Seed
You can start seeds either undercover in pots or sow them directly into their final position.
Start seeds undercover about 4 weeks before the last predicted frost date. Sow the seeds in pots filled with fresh potting soil. I like to sow my seeds in biodegradable pots, such as Wpxmer Seed Starter Peat Pots, because it makes transplanting easier and helps to reduce the risk of shock. When they are ready, the seedlings can simply be planted in their pots in their final position. As the plant grows the pot gradually breaks down, allowing the root system to spread.
If you are starting the seeds in their final position, wait until the soil has warmed up. Cantaloupe plants grow best in soil that is consistently at least 70 ℉.
Sow your cantaloupe seeds in a warm, sunny position. The soil should be well draining and have a pH value of between 6.0 and 6.5. A soil test kit is a quick and easy way to discover the pH value of your soil if you are unsure. It can also be used to work out if your soil is lacking in any key nutrients.
Before sowing or transplanting improve your soil by working in several inches of compost or rich organic matter.
Roots emerge from the pointed end of the seed. Sow seeds round end up.
Sow the seeds pointy end down. Roots emerge from the pointed end of the seed. Sow the seeds around half an inch to an inch deep.
Many growers recommend sowing two or three seeds per hole. This means that if one or two fails to germinate the third almost certainly will. If all three seeds germinate, pick out the weakest two seedlings.
If you are sowing seeds in soil that can be poor to drain, mound the soil up slightly and sow the seeds at the top of the mound. This encourages excess water to drain away from the seeds.
Space the plants about 2 ft apart. If you are planting rows of the fruit, space each row 5 to 6 ft apart.
Cover the seeds and water well.
Germination usually takes about 1 week. This can be slightly longer in cooler climates.
How to Transplant Seedlings
Transplants and seeds started undercover should be allowed time to harden off before transplanting. Wait until the soil has warmed up, the seedlings have developed at least two sets of true leaves and the danger of frost has passed before you transplant.
Prepare the soil, if you haven’t already, by working in lots of compost or organic matter.
Dig a hole large enough to hold the root ball of the transplant. If you are transplanting seedlings growing in biodegradable pots, the hole should be large enough to hold the pot. The top of the root system or pot should be level with the soil level.
Place the plant in the hole and gently backfill, being careful not to overly compact the soil.
Space transplants 2 ft apart.
After transplanting, or if you have sown in the final position following germination, cover the plants with floating row covers. This protects them from insects while also trapping warm air close to the plants. This keeps them warm and encourages lots of healthy fresh growth.
The cover can be removed when nighttime temperatures consistently remain above 50 ℉. Keeping plants covered can cause them to overheat. It can also prevent pollinators from finding the flowers, hampering pollination. Remember, pollination is vital if you want the plants to bear fruit.
Growing in Pots
Growing cantaloupe plants in containers is entirely possible, however unless you have a very large pot or barrel you are better off growing dwarf varieties such as Minnesota Midget or Sugar Cube.
Your chosen pot should have plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and be capable of holding at least 5 gallons of potting soil. The potting soil should also contain vermiculite or perlite. This helps the soil to retain moisture. You can mix some into the soil if it contains neither.
Work in some slow-release general purpose fertilizer before planting.
Place the pot in a light position, ideally the plants receive 8 hours of sun a day.
Sow or plant as described above and water well. Keep the soil moist until seeds have germinated.
This is also the ideal time to install a trellis or some form of support.
Supporting Growing Plants
Sowing seeds is the ideal time to install support such as a trellis. You can also sow near a fence or other pre-installed support. As well as being robust enough to support your growing cantaloupe the support will need to have slings to cradle the developing fruit.
Raising cantaloupe fruit off the ground helps to prevent rotting. It also frees up more ground space for you to grow other crops.
Caring for Growing Cantaloupe Plants
Regularly weed the soil around your plants. This is particularly important when the growing seedlings are young and vulnerable. When weeding be careful not to damage the developing root system of the plants.
How Often Should I Water?
Water growing cantaloupe plants regularly. On average, if it hasn’t rained, the plants require 1 to 2 inches of water a week. This is best given gradually, in small doses over the week, watering only when the soil begins to dry out.
Using a soaker hose enables you to keep the soil moist and the plants hydrated without wetting the foliage. Damp foliage can develop mould or mildew.
Try to water your plants in the morning. This means that if the foliage does get wet it has all day to dry out before the cooler evening temperatures arrive.
When the melons reach tennis ball size you can reduce watering slightly. Water only when the soil begins to dry or the foliage starts to wilt.
Keep the soil moist and weed free. Mulching can help this.
When to Fertilize
Growing cantaloupe plants require lots of nutrients to thrive. Apply a general purpose fertilizer every two or three weeks. A water soluble or liquid fertilizer can be easily incorporated into your watering routine. Diluting the fertilizer to half its strength before applying helps to prevent root burn.
Mulch is a key ingredient in growing juicy cantaloupe melons. Not only does it help to deter weed growth and improve soil moisture retention it also helps to keep the soil warm. This is particularly useful if you are growing in cooler areas.
A layer of mulch, either organic or material such as Agfabric Landscape Barrier, is also a good way to keep fruit off the ground, preventing it from rotting.
Companion planting is a useful way of attracting beneficial insects and keeping plants healthy whilst repelling more destructive pests.
Nasturtiums, marigolds as well as aromatic herbs like basil, sage and garlic can all help to repel aphids and other insects. Corn is also a good choice because its height helps to shade smaller growing plants. It is also a useful way to suppress weed growth.
Other good companion choices include collards, petunias and beans.
Members of the Cucurbitaceae family such as cucumbers and squash can also work as companion plants because they all share similar growing habits and requirements. However, you should avoid planting too many similar plants together.
A glut of Cucurbitaceae plants can attract destructive pests such as the cucumber beetle. Spacing your plants out around your garden means that if the pest does strike it is unlikely to decimate the entire crop.
Avoid growing too many members of the same plant family together. This can help destructive pests to decimate your crops.
You should also avoid planting close to potatoes and roses, both of these can attract aphids.
Supporting Growing Vines
Growing cantaloupe on a support such as a trellis raises the plant, helping to make the most of vertical space while allowing horizontal space to be used for other plants. If allowed to spread untrained, a cantaloupe can take up over 20 ft of growing space. Training your vines to grow up helps you to make the most of your space.
Growing vertically also makes harvesting easier and helps to keep the fruit clean, healthy and away from pests.
Your support should be robust and held firmly in place. Growing cantaloupe plants can be heavy, particularly when in fruit, and may dislodge or damage weak and poorly positioned supports.
As the vines grow allow them to entwine around the support. Plant ties can be used to encourage this process.
As the fruit matures it may become too heavy and fall from the vine before it is ripe. To prevent this use a melon hammock, or a piece of cloth as a makeshift sling, to support the plant. The sling should be tightly fixed to the support but also provide enough room for the fruit to grow into.
Pruning Growing Vines
Growing cantaloupe plants can quickly spread and grow over other plants. Pruning and training your plants can help to control this spread.
Strictly speaking, pruning isn’t necessary. Many growers avoid pruning their growing vines unless it is absolutely necessary. Indeed the more leaves that are allowed to remain on the plant the sweeter the fruit is. However, pruning can also be useful.
Pruning makes training the plants, to a trellis or some other form of support, easier. While cutting back the plants can result in a smaller yield, the fruit that is produced will be larger.
Whether you decide to prune or not is entirely up to you.
Pruning and vertical growing can help to prevent overcrowding and keep plants healthy.
How to Prune
Growing cantaloupe plants produce a primary stem from which secondary or lateral branches emerge. When pruning aim to keep the main vine intact. Remove the first lateral branch completely and cut back the secondary branches to about the eight leaf node. While the first lateral vine should be removed, one or two lateral vines can be allowed to remain in place.
When pruning use a clean garden scissors to make precise, sharp cuts. Remember to always sterilize your tools before and after using them.
As the cantaloupe continues to grow, remove damaged and disfigured fruit. Allow the healthiest looking fruit to remain in place and mature. Damaged vines and branches should also be removed as soon as you notice them. Swift removal helps to keep the plant healthy.
In colder climates cut away any blossoms that emerge as your first predicted frost date approaches, around 50 days and sooner. These flowers won’t have time to develop into mature fruit before the frost arrives. Cutting them away encourages the plant to put its energy into ripening fruit that is already set.
Common Problems and How to Solve Them
While growing cantaloupe plants love the heat if temperatures rise above 95 ℉ for several days the plants may overheat. This can lead to flower drop. Keeping the soil moist and covering with a layer of mulch helps to keep plants cool.
Warm temperatures and poor watering routines can cause otherwise healthy cantaloupe plants to drop their flowers.
Regularly check your cantaloupe vines for signs of infestation. Aphids can be particularly troublesome. While small infestations can be washed from the plant with a blast from a hosepipe, larger infestations may need to be treated with an application of insecticidal soap.
Cucumber beetles can also target growing vines, leading to bacterial rot. Gently wiping neem oil over the foliage is an effective treatment.
Cutworms can kill seedlings and make holes in developing fruit. Like other pests infestations can be treated with applications of neem oil or insecticidal soap.
In hot and humid conditions Alternaria leaf blight can be problematic. To prevent this from developing try to keep the plants as dry as possible. A fungicide can be used to treat affected plants.
Downy Mildew can also be problematic, particularly if foliage is allowed to get or remain wet. While fungicide can treat the issue prevention is often easier. Water only the soil and water early in the morning. This gives any foliage that does get wet time to dry out.
The Fusarium wilt disease is caused by soil borne fungus. To prevent this, adopt a form of crop rotation, rotating all your plants. This helps to increase productivity and keeps your garden healthy.
Powdery mildew can be a problem if your plants aren’t correctly spaced or are overcrowded. It can also be an issue if you allow the plants to remain under cover, such as under floating row covers, for too long.
Finally, a failure to flower can be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil. It can also be caused by applying too much nitrogen rich fertilizer. In the heat of summer vines may only produce male flowers. These do not bear fruit, only female flowers do this.
How to Harvest Your Fruit
When it comes to harvesting, getting your timing right is key. Harvesting too soon leaves you with hard, bitter or tasteless fruit. Once cut from the plant, the fruit doesn’t ripen further. Allowing the plants to remain on the vine for too long can cause them to turn soft and watery.
Melons are usually ready for harvest about a month after the fruit sets. A ripe cantaloupe separates easily from the stem. If the fruit is difficult to remove, allow it to remain on the vine a little longer. As fruit ripens it changes from a green shade to either a tan or yellow-gray color. Ripe fruit also smells sweet and pleasant. If the fruit looks and smells ripe but is difficult to remove from the plant, carefully cut it away from the plant.
Best eaten fresh, you can store unwashed uncut fruit in the refrigerator for a week. Cut melon can be sealed in a plastic bag and stored for about 3 days.
Sweet, juicy and full of nutrients, cantaloupe plants are a great addition to the summer fruit garden.
With a little warmth and lots of water growing cantaloupe melons is a refreshingly easy process. A low maintenance plant, they will reward your efforts with sweet, juicy fruit that is packed full of vitamins and nutrients.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.